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Anya Liftig, The Human Factor, performance photo: Ken Yee

Art Life and Life Life: A Conversation with Anya Liftig

By Philip Auslander


Anya Liftig is a performance artist who has shown her work at legendary venues such as the Judson Memorial Church and Dixon Place in New York City, as well as numerous international venues and performance festivals in London, Berlin, Helsinki, and Paris, among many others. Her first foray into performance was as a dancer. Initially, she started taking ballet classes at age six as a form of rehabilitation from a severe injury that caused both physical and neurological damage. As a teenager, she studied at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York City. After entertaining the possibility of a career in modern dance, she matriculated at Yale University, where she majored in English. While at Yale, Liftig also studied photography, an interest she pursued further in the Master of Fine Arts program at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Observing that Liftig often made photographs by performing for the camera, one of her professors suggested that she eschew the lens and perform directly for her audience.


In 2023, Abrams published Liftig’s engaging memoir, Holler Rat. The title refers to the homeplace of Liftig’s mother’s family, Ganderbill Holler in eastern Kentucky. Liftig grew up middle class in Connecticut, where her southern mother and northeastern Jewish father had settled, but she spent her summers in a part of the Appalachians where life is defined by poverty, self-reliance, and insularity. Although Liftig attending Yale echoed her mother having escaped Appalachia through the Peace Corps—a choice for which her family never forgave her—Liftig herself feels drawn to her maternal heritage, particularly as personified by her ferocious grandmother, Mamaw. Liftig’s story is not just her own—it is also the story of three generations of women, the ties that bind them and the differences that separate them. Although Liftig’s life as a struggling artist in Brooklyn bears little resemblance to the rural existence of her forebears, it turns out that Appalachian self-reliance serves her well as an urban pioneer. Holler Rat is a kind of Bildungsroman that traces the evolution of the artist Anya Liftig from a childhood marked by physical trauma into a tentative adult identity negotiated through the tensions inherent in her background, tensions that cannot be resolved.


Liftig’s performance art work is recognizably within the tradition of feminist performance, as refracted through her own distinctive brand of humor. She cites both the Serbian performance artist-cum-celebrity Marina Abramović and silent film comedians such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton as influences. From Abramović (and perhaps from Liftig’s background in dance) comes a commitment to performing tasks that are often physically difficult, even when they are humorous poses, and sometimes psychically demanding. From the silent film comedians comes a performance persona that is simultaneously abject and hilarious and that seems to be engaged in a perpetual struggle with the world around her, particularly with small objects, foodstuffs, and animals, living or dead. In a performance at the Pumpehuse in Copenhagen in 2013, which could have been a realization of Alison Knowles’s well-known “Make a Salad,” a Fluxus work of 1962, Liftig begins, deadpan and silent, by holding up individual vegetables––a head of lettuce, a bunch of carrots––for the audience’s inspection in the manner of a magician and proceeds to make a salad without using any utensils. She makes each operation seem as difficult as possible, digging into the lettuce with her hands to shred it, stuffing multiple carrots into her mouth to bite off pieces which she spits into a bowl, smashing a bunch of broccoli on her head. In the end, she gifted the resultant salad to a small child in the audience who may have appreciated the mayhem that went into its making.

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Anya Liftig, Sleeper/Keeper, 2020, Performance Film Still 

Philip Auslander: You have said that you wrote Holler Rat in part because there was a time when you were not able to make performances but could write. Why this kind of writing? Where did the autobiographical impulse come from?


Anya Liftig: I love reading fiction and poetry, but the type of writing that has had the most impact in my life has definitely been memoir. I’ve always been fascinated by the intimate relationship that develops as a narrator tells the story of their life. Looking back on it now, I think in many ways I was looking to see how the narrator/reader relationship could step in for the performer/audience connection. What would be different? Of course, I think that one of the main factors is that autobiography, especially publishing in a more conventional memoir format, is a much more accessible form in general than performance art. Certainly, it is easier to physically access than trekking it out to a gallery or performance space. So, part of writing the book was also reconsidering who the audience was/is. Originally, I thought that my interest in writing was a way of turning away from the world of performance, but now I realize that making the book was really just about making another type of performance, one that exists within tension between the ephemerality of the the reading moment and the seeming permanence of the words.


PA: You have said that earlier versions of the book did not include material related to your performance work, only your life apart from it, but your editor persuaded you to include it. What relationships between your life and the performances you describe in the book do you want your reader to think about?


AL: My life has been characterized by living in the between places of cultures, classes, religions, geographies, and genres. I hope that the reader thinks about the way that my work really operates as a metaphor for these life chasms. Even though it may now be considered a naïve way of making and appreciating art, I am still someone largely in love with art as a form of emotional expression. I can discuss plenty of art history and theory, but I’m not that far from the teenager who was choreographing Martha Graham pieces to the Indigo Girls in my childhood. My work is about what it is to be a human who feels everything. What I really want at the end of the day is for the reader to think about what performance art they would make of their life.

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Anya Liftig, Holler Rat performance 2023, photo: Henry Chan 

PA: Speaking of writing the memoir, you have also said: “looking the bad things in the face was very difficult for me.” To me, at least some of your performance work seems to be about negotiating the bad things without looking them directly in the face. I’m thinking, for example, about the performance in which audience members cover you in glue, then peel it off, something you previously did to yourself (as we learn from the memoir), thus displacing the action onto other people, which may be a way of simultaneously addressing and avoiding the implications of your having engaged in such behavior on your own.


AL: Interesting––Yes, I guess a move to the participatory could also be interpreted as dissociative in a way. I don’t think the glue piece was consciously about trying to avoid the implications of having smeared myself so many times as a kid. I think it was more about wanting to know what it would feel like to be entirely covered in the substance and what it would be like to “shed” the glue skin with the help of (mostly) strangers. The act of shedding is one that I think resonates with act of writing memoir and it's one of the reasons that I put a description of this performance at the very beginning of the book. I wanted the book to be both a type of peeling and shedding of my identity. I wanted it to be something of a husk of who I was at 45. Now that the book has been out in the world for a little bit, I’m just starting to discover what that act of shedding might allow to open up. It’s sort of scary, honestly. But also, exciting.


PA: For a long time, you rarely spoke in your performances. However, you have incorporated material from the book verbally into live events, and you performed the audiobook. How has it been for you to break your silence with this very personal material? 


AL: Challenging. I think I had it in my head that I would find that performing Holler Rat publicly would be an easy opening to a world of writing scripted material for performance. But honestly, it doesn’t feel that way. I don’t think that my artistic destiny is to merge performance and words right now, at least not to try to bring them together consciously. I’ve found it’s really hard for me to reinhabit my words once I’ve put them down. It’s like once I define it, it gets cold. Silence is still hot for me. But I really don’t know. It’s all up to the Gods of Process.

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Anya Liftig, Sleep is Love, 2023, video still

PA: What was it like to record the audio book?


AL: Recording the audiobook was a fantastic experience. I had to audition for it like anyone else and I was terrified I wouldn’t make the cut. But I did and it was like being at a sleepover when you were nine and spilling all of your secrets to girls you were not quite sure are actually your friends enough to keep them. The stakes felt high.

Anya Liftig reading from "Holler Rat"
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PA: I’d be interested in knowing whether you experience your audiences at art performances the same way, as a group of potential friends to whom you are spilling secrets.


AL: I think I generally experience my audiences at art performances a bit differently. I think they are people that have to be won over, seduced a little bit, brought in from the cold and warmed up. I really work on creating a kind of infectious energy in the room—building up a sense of anticipation and drama. I definitely call on the structures of the silent or oft-silent comedic actors I love: Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Peter Sellers (in The Party in particular). So, I try to experience art audiences more as a collective whole, and my written audiences as singular interactions.


PA: The Party is a wonderful, anarchic movie from 1968, directed by Blake Edwards. Highly recommended! Let’s go back in time now. You insinuated yourself into Marina Abramović’s famous The Artist is Present at MoMA in 2010, the performance for which she sat in the museum’s atrium for all of each day of her retrospective at the museum and invited others to sit opposite her. Since you monopolized the space for the whole day, I’ve come to think of your intervention as “Occupy Abramović.” What was the purpose or value of dressing like her as part of this?


AL: Occupy Abramović! I love it. Dressing like her was very important to me in that intervention. At the time I was a young performance artist, mostly making works about the limits of my body that were durational and endurance based. My master’s thesis at Georgia State University had been heavily influenced by her work, and when I heard that she was having a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was thrilled.


The show had a live cam so that you could watch her sit with visitors in the atrium and as soon as the show opened, I watched all the time. I’d watch people come and sit for three, five, occasionally fifteen minutes and then get up and leave. All the time Marina just sat there stone-still in her long blue dress with her long black braid. It started to upset me a little bit. It felt like Marina was so much more powerful than the people she was sitting across from, like a deity. My mischief button was activated. I had an idea that it would be hilarious if someone like me, who sat and watched the live cam all day instead of doing their work, watched a mini-Marina plop down and just not get up.


But it was more than that. I wanted to do something that showed I was paying attention. She was a huge influence in my life, and influence can be a mixture of admiration and frustration. How many ideas did I have in my 20s and then say, “too Marina.” But I didn’t think I could in any way bring myself to be face-to-face with Marina and NOT do something to make a statement, just to mark how important she was and still is to me.


I went to MoMA and studied the space and the rules. There was no time-limit, technically, when I sat all day, I wasn’t violating any rules. In fact, I wasn’t the first person to sit all day. Another person, Pablo, sat multiple full days during the duration of the show. I didn’t want to break the rules. I wanted to push them to their edge, but not break them, because that would be truly disrespectful and disruptive. Dressing like her was a way to show that I wanted to have what she had, that I aspired to be her, but also a way of calling out what it means to be influenced, to come after, to descend from someone. We love our mothers, but we also want to don’t want to become them.

Anya Liftig with Marina Abramović at The Artist is Present at MoMA in 2010

PA: This sounds like the phenomenon the literary critics Harold Bloom described many years ago as “the anxiety of influence.”


AL: Yes, exactly. That was why I titled my guerilla intervention “The Anxiety of Influence.” It is perhaps no coincidence that I myself spent four years under the irrepressible anxiety of Bloom’s influence when I studied for an English major at Yale, where he taught for decades.


PA: You have described some of your performances in terms that suggest a kind of self-objectification through which you subject yourself to the audience, as when you say, “I’m just a cake. People are going to eat me.” Describing other performances in which you perform extreme acts, you say that pushing an action that initially draws the audience in to the point where they are forced to question what is going on “makes the viewer complicit in the piece.” Complicity seems to be inherent in both kinds of performance, those in which the audience acts on you and those in which the audience just observes you. What is the value of placing the audience in this position of complicity?


AL: It gets them fundamentally involved in the emotional stakes of the performance; it sort of gives them a perch on my shoulder, a crack through which to peer into my head without having to concoct a theatrical narrative or character. I think that my most successful pieces have all had this element in a way, and it likely comes from building that sense of energy in the room from the moment the piece

starts––creating a real connection with the audience. For me, it frequently starts with very long periods of eye contact. It’s one of my favorite elements in performance. I just love staring directly at people. Pushing them away a little bit with aggression but also drawing them in. But ultimately, I think that the value of complicity is that you don’t just end up watching someone perform some actions; you inhabit someone’s a brain for a while.

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 Anya Liftig, Sleeper/Keeper, 2020, Performance Film Still 

PA: You do not rehearse your performances and are committed to letting the moment unfold. Do you ever reuse concepts or scores, or is each performance designed as a one-off?


AL: I really try to make each performance totally new, but I have performed a few on more than one occasion. Occasionally, when I have been lucky to be invited to specific festivals or venues, a specific piece has been requested, but I don’t have any piece in repertory or a sort of act that I take around for a while. In the cases where I have performed a piece in more than one place, like my glue piece, Amor y Problemas, a description of which starts off Holler Rat, comparing the experiences is always fascinating. The difference between having an audience smear glue all over my naked body in Medellin, Colombia and in New York City was profound. In Medellin, families with little kids collectively took part in the smearing and the peeling. It was a joyous atmosphere. People were very cooperative with each other as they worked to cover and then uncover me. In NYC, people approached me one by one, each behaving as if they were a star of a show, one upping each other with the drama and flare with which they spread glue on me. One guy dumped a whole bottle into my public hair, mostly for laughs it seemed. Of course, the gallery and presentation dynamics all factor into this, even the weather and certainly if there is an open bar impact the way different pieces play in different places. In one performance in which I was nude and people were asked to circle all the flaws they saw on my body with magic markers, I was eventually used as a coaster for people’s plastic wine glasses. That ended the show.


PA: You mentioned your time at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Since The Art Section is based in Atlanta, please tell us a little more about your time here and your thoughts on the Atlanta art scene.


AL: I definitely would not be a practicing artist today had I not come to Atlanta in my early 20s. I feel very lucky to have been a fully-funded MFA student at GSU. Of course, things were a bit cheaper back in the aughts, but the city offered a ton of space at mostly reasonable prices and endless opportunities to experiment. Thrift stores were abundant with cheap materials. Galleries like Eyedrum and Youngblood were open to my nutty ideas. The Nexus Press was still operating in those years and the High Museum of Art and Atlanta Contemporary meant that we were getting great visiting artists all the time. The Atlanta College of Art had a crazy creative cohort of students, and the local gallery scene meant that most weeks we had new shows to check out. It was cheap enough that we could pool our resources and put on shows and go out and support our friends’ shows. We were able to live on our school stipends and the assortment of odd art-school jobs we all had. This meant that we learned how to be resourceful, which above all, is probably the most important skill you can hone in any art school.


I loved that the art world in Atlanta was very unpretentious. This isn’t to say that people weren’t educated and experienced with art, they were that––just that that in Atlanta, I was able to say that strip malls at sunset had their own strange beauty, and that Buford Highway (a 30-mile stretch of road in Atlanta that is home to multiple immigrant communities and cuisines) was an infinite world to discover and be met with enthusiasm and not snobbery. Mostly, I would say that the people I knew who made art in Atlanta at that time were excited about coming together and being part of a real community. The fact that GSU attracted such a diversity of students definitely had something to do with it, but I also think that the sheer size of the city, the fun little nooks and crannies of weirdness, meant it was a very inspiring place to exist together.


I left the city in 2004 and have made it back at least once a year ever since. One of the coolest parts of releasing Holler Rat was once again feeling the strength of my art connections from long ago. Atlanta was a place where I felt free to explore all my ideas, even the bad ones, even the truly terrible ones, and for that I will always be grateful.

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Anya Liftig, AAAA Untitled, 2023, photo: Henry Chan 

PA: You told me you recently had an experience in Africa that has provided fresh context for thinking about the element of risk in performance art. I’d love to hear more about both things.


AL: Yes––as a reward for getting Holler Rat out into the world, I signed up for a safari in Kenya and Tanzania, something that had long been on my bucket list. The first part of the safari was amazing. Even though it was the off-season, right away we saw, elephants, zebras, water buffalo, lions, rhinos, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes.


In the Serengeti, we were staying in very basic but sturdy pitch-it-ourself tents. They were made of heavy-duty synthetic canvas and had Velcro linings that covered most of the hardware. The company told us that the campground we were in was unfenced, as most of the areas in Serengeti are, but it was also unguarded, which is not the case for most accommodations in the park. They waited to disclose the “unguarded” part until the day before. We were told to empty our bags of anything that could possibly be edible and to try not to exit our tents at night.


The first night was peaceful, but in the middle of the second night, I was awoken when something huge slammed into my tent, followed by the most ungodly series of sounds I have ever contemplated existing. My tent started shaking as animals of undetermined but clearly deadly capacity started climbing the sides. I had the top flap unzipped for air and could hear claws and growling amidst the ongoing shrieks. I was submerged in complete darkness and my only conclusion was that I had somehow forgotten to take a granola bar out of my bag and was now about to be eaten by the animals who found it. At a certain point, I guessed I had died because I couldn’t really prove to myself that I was alive—the noises outside were so intense, no living person would hear them.


I didn’t believe I was alive until I saw the first light come up through the mesh flap at the top of the tent. The ground by my tent was covered in blood. A couple on our trip had their tent windows open and had watched as an impala crashed into my tent, followed by two lionesses who proceeded to kill it on the side of my tent, shredding it and fighting over it inches from my head. A male lion and several more females came and surrounded our tents and fought over the meat for the next few hours, until just before dawn when the hyenas came to eat the bones and haul the carcass into the bush. I don’t know how the tent managed to stay up with the weight of the lions pressing down on it, but it did. I don’t know how I managed not to scream, but I did. Screaming would have likely meant a much more serious encounter with the lionesses who would have been threatened at the moment of their kill.


And do you know who I thought of almost immediately? Marina and that picture of her that was released around the time The Artist is Present documentary came out in 2012 where she is bottle feeding a baby tiger. I was thinking, this sounds like a Marina piece: I’ll go into the Serengeti, sleep out in the open, and let lions eat me.


This whole situation really has had me revaluating the role of risk in my work. I used to choose my next project by thinking about what would put me in the most vulnerable, most scary place. That was how I started writing my memoir. But I always created this very concrete division between my art life and my “life life.” In Tanzania, my life life caught up with me. Maybe it’s just that I am approaching middle age, but I don’t know that one has to go courting risk to have to contend with it. It’s around us every single second of the day. Just eating anything with more than five ingredients is risky.


The other thing is just the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Artist goes to Africa to celebrate finishing book. Artist is almost eaten by lions because she thinks she has stale granola bar still at the bottom of her thrifted backpack, so stupid––what a reason to die––over a store-brand granola bar.


I don’t know. Maybe the world is handing me the start of my next book. Or maybe I just need to do everything I can to forget about it. I do know that it will make it into my work in one way or another.

Everything always does.

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Anya Liftig is a writer and performance artist. Her creative work has been exhibited at TATE Modern, MOMA, Center for Performance Research, Panoply Performance Lab, Highways Performance Space, Lapsody4 Finland, Fado Toronto, Performance Art Institute San Francisco, Queens Museum, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Rose Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, Grace Exhibition Space, Movement Research at Judson Church, The Kitchen at the Independent Art Fair, Performer Stammtisch Berlin, Performance Space London, Month of Performance Art Berlin, OVADA-Oxford, Joyce Soho, and many other venues around the world. As a dancer and actress, Liftig has performed with Michael Freeman at Joyce Soho and at The Chocolate Factory and New York Live Arts in Andrea Kleine’s pieces Screening Room and My Dinner with Andrea.

Anya Liftig


Philip Auslander writes frequently on performance, music, and art. His most recent books are In Concert: Performing Musical Persona, published in 2021, the third edition of Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, and Women Rock! Portraits in Popular Music, both 2023. Dr. Auslander is a Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech, and the Editor of The Art Section.  

Phil Auslander photo: Marie Thomas

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